Bad Decisions in History: featuring Alboin, King of the Lombards

Through history, most royal marriages were made for political rather than romantic reasons. Sometimes this worked out well – both halves of the married pair got what they wanted, which was usually strategic alliances, wealth and power. Sometimes it was rather disastrous, especially if it involved a marriage by conquest as was the case for Alboin, King of the Lombards, and Rosamund, daughter of the leader of the Gepids.

Bad decision: Marrying the daughter of one’s conquered rival and treating her as such, like an enemy instead of a new ally, taunting her with the victory.

First of all, ‘who are the Lombards?’ you might be asking. Or, ‘I’ve never heard of the Gepids.’ Honestly, neither had I until started looking into this bad decision in history. Briefly, The Lombards, a Germanic people, ruled most of the Italian Peninsula from about 568 to 774. The Gepids, an East Germanic tribe, were rivals of the Lombards.

Alboin had been king of the Lombards since 560. As kings often did, he liked to conquer territory, and had successfully captured some of the territory that the Gepids previously held. In retaliation, Cunimund, the King of the Gepids, launched an attack to try and take back this land. In the ensuing battles, the Gepids were defeated. Cunimund himself was slain in 567, and his decapitated head taken back to Alboin, along with a high-ranking prisoner –  Cunimund’s daughter, Rosamund.

This woodcut of Alboin is from 1493, about 900 years after his death, so who knows if it’s accurate. I imagined him a little less wizened and a little more warrior-like. 

Alboin needed a male heir to succeed his reign, and since he was a widower, he decided to marry the daughter of his vanquished enemy. It was absolutely not a love match. Rosamund hated Alboin, who in turn was known to be cruel to her. Supposedly, Alboin liked to walk around with Cunimund’s skull hanging from his belt for all to see. Seems a bit of a bulky way to taunt someone, but was probably quite effective. During a banquet, Alboin reportedly forced Rosamund to drink from her dead father’s skull. Since skull cups were sometimes used as trophies or ritualistic items through history, it’s quite possible this story is true. If Alboin had the skull at a banquet, evidently worked into a cup form (which would involve removing the lower part of the skull), it seems safe to assume he probably drank from it himself at times.

Rosamund was not entirely without resources, however. As the daughter of the late Gepid king, she undoubtedly had some loyal supporters, even if many of them were prisoners. She took a lover, a man called Helmichis, who was Alboin’s arms bearer, and together they plotted Alboin’s death. As the story goes, they needed a third accomplice, and attempted to enlist the aid of Peredeo, a man known for this strength. Peredeo refused, so Rosamund seduced in him the disguise of a servant. After learning that he had committed adultery, even if unwitting, with Alboin’s wife, Peredeo agreed to help kill the king rather than risk his retribution.

It’s difficult to say if all of these colourful details are true, but if so, they certainly showcase Rosamund’s determination to avenge her father. The plan went forward; Alboin went to bed drunk after a feast, and Helmichis and Peredeo entered his chamber with murderous intent. Alboin sprang out of bed, but since Rosamund had also ensured that his sword was removed (or tied to the bedpost, in some versions of the story), he was forced to defend himself with nothing more than a footstool. It’s unclear if Helmichis or Peredeo struck the killing blow; both have been assigned as the sole murderer in various accounts.

Alboin’s death struck a blow to the new Germanic entity he’d been creating through his consolidating his conquered territory, for he had no fitting successor. I have a feeling this probably would have pleased Rosamund. This is the end of Alboin’s bad decision; he treated his wife so badly that she had him assassinated. The rest of Rosamund’s story is dramatic though, so we’ll cover that, too.

In the aftermath of the assassination, Rosamund and Helmichis married. He most likely planned to succeed Alboin on the Lombard throne, but received little support from the various duchies of the kingdom. Rosamund and Helmichis were forced to flee – but not before collecting most of Alboin’s stash of treasure. Rosamund supposedly took another lover, a man called Longinus, probably in an attempt to secure another powerful ally. Or perhaps she was tiring of Helmichis; considering the arc of their relationship, one has to wonder if there was ever really any affection between them or if they were just using each other for their own goals. Longinus wanted to marry Rosamund, but that pesky Helmichis was in the way, so she decided to poison him.

Here’s a suitably sinister depiction of Rosamund

As a seasoned murderer himself, Helmichis suspected Rosamund’s plan. He forced her to drink the poison first, and then consumed the rest himself afterward. I bet you didn’t see a Romeo and Juliet style double death coming! I certainly didn’t.

I’m starting to wonder if the real bad decision here is getting involved with Rosamund, queen of ruthlessness.

Outcome: Lots of murder, lots of ulterior-motive seductions, a setback to a growing empire.

 

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